How the Pirates got defensive

Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review had an excellent, in-depth piece over the weekend on how the Pirates have embraced more shifts on defense and how it has helped improve their run prevention. From the article:

In 2008, the Pirates hired Dan Fox to be their first data architect. Fox was a former writer at Baseball Prospectus and a computer science whiz. More than anyone, he changed the way the Pirates thought about defense.

Fox researched where balls historically most often had been hit. He took evidence to (GM Neal) Huntington that suggested the Pirates should change their defensive alignment. Fox suggested the Pirates not only increase their use of shifts but also alter where defenders, particularly infielders, are placed in base defenses.

"We've played infield positions conventionally for years, but if you look at hundreds of thousands of balls put in play, data shows that we're actually off a little bit,” Huntington said.

The philosophy was not immediately accepted at the major league level, but the Pirates began shifting their base defense in the minor leagues in 2009. Since then, the club's minor league teams often have ranked first or second in defensive efficiency, Huntington said.

The article details how the field personnel bought in this year -- from manager Clint Hurdle down to the players (well, maybe not A.J. Burnett). After shifting 105 times in 2012, the Pirates have shifted over 400 times in 2013. Their defensive efficiency -- the percentage of balls in play that are turned into outs -- has improved from 10th in the majors to fifth. (This after being last in the majors in 2010.)

In terms of Defensive Runs Saved, the stat tracked by Baseball Info Solutions, the Pirates have improved from -25 (24th in the majors) to +59 (third). Now, that's not all a result of the shifts. Starling Marte -- a left fielder with a center fielder's range -- is rated as the Pirates' best defender at +20 runs. Still, outside of Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Clint Barmes (who lost his job as starting shortstop anyway), this isn't a team of highly regarded defensive players. Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Garrett Jones and Travis Snider aren't exactly considered Gold Glove candidates. But collectively the Pirates have played great defense, and the shifts are a huge reason for that.

Of course, the Pirates aren't the only team shifting more. Shifts are way up across the majors this season -- on pace for about 3,000 more shifts this season and up about 5,000 total shifts from 2011.

Not all teams have embraced the shift, however. Here's an article from MLB.com in late August, pointing out that Mike Matheny had cut back on the number of shifts employed by the Cardinals because the pitchers hadn't bought in to the concept. "Last year there were times when we were shifting and I knew [the pitchers] weren't real comfortable with it," Matheny said. "No matter what I believe, we can talk to guys about the importance and show them the statistics, but if they don't feel comfortable with how the defense is aligned behind them, we're wasting our time."

The Cardinals rank 21st in the majors in defensive efficiency and 23rd in Defensive Runs Saved.

Still, it's inevitable that more shifts will spread across the league, ceasing to be the "advantage" it currently is for teams like the Pirates and Rays. When you think about it, it's surprising it took so for teams to utilize more shifts; beyond the few exaggerated alignments we saw for extreme pull hitters like Ted Williams or David Ortiz, we didn't see the kind of defensive positioning we now see every day.

Go back to Little League. Who were the kids who hit ground balls to the opposite field? The kids who weren't any good, right? Well, the same concept is essentially true in the majors. If you're a right-handed batter hitting a lot of groundballs to second base, it's because you don't have the bat speed to pull the ball. In fact, if you're doing that too often, you don't reach the majors in the first place. Most batters are going to pull the ball or hit it up the middle when they hit it on the ground. That doesn't mean you shift for everyone; there will always be great bat-control artists like Ichiro Suzuki or Marco Scutaro who can place the ball or the speedy left-handed hitters who slap the ball to the opposite field.

Really, it's so logical to embrace the shift that the unanswered question is: Why did it take to so long?

Thanks to analysts like Dan Fox, baseball teams are smarter. We sometimes like to believe baseball hasn't changed since Babe Ruth was swatting home runs. But it has, right before our eyes.